Fossil-Fueled Fine Art
When The Big Trucks Roar, America Is Singing.
By James DiGiovanna
FEBRUARY 8, 1999: AS THE UNIVERSAL art form, the ballet is the standard against which all other performing arts must be judged.
First of all, everyone loves the ballet. Don't let people fool you: If they say they don't like the ballet, they're either lying or haven't been. As proof of ballet's appeal, grab the manliest guy you know (I assume he's the least likely ballet fan), take him to the ballet, and point out that he's watching nearly naked women with perfect bodies placing themselves in physical danger for his enjoyment. With that in mind, he's sure to comprehend that this is what high culture is all about.
Of course, the best part of the ballet, as in all artistic and athletic events, is the risk of devastating injuries. With all those impossible jumps and spins in high heels, someone's bound to take a nasty spill, and maybe even take a few bystanders with her.
So, with that as our standard, what's the second greatest art form?
The hands-down winner is the monster truck show. Just like the ballet, it has drama, music, danger, a cheesy storyline about good and evil; basically, everything except for the gorgeous bodies (which makes me wonder why "heterosexual" men prefer it to the ballet). Furthermore, the crashes are easily twice as spectacular. Everyone loves the monster trucks: Take the snootiest ballet fan you can find and force him to go with you to the TCC next time the trucks roll into town, and you're sure to make a convert.
Last Friday we Tucsonans, after a long delay, were once again blessed with the roar and stench of the jacked-up pickups. Let's imagine our hypothetical ballet fan entering the Tucson Convention Center before the show: The first thing he sees is a stunning, postmodern tableau. The floor that has supported hockey and basketball games is now artistically arranged in an asymmetrical display of dirt mounds and wrecked cars, packed together into a series of ramps, but forming, from above, the trailer-park equivalent of a Japanese stone garden. Marcel Duchamp, eat your heart out!
OK, so right off the bat we have a set design that rivals the best of the New York City Ballet, but wait...what's that blaring music? Yes, in answer to ballet's "classical music," the monster truck show gives you classic rock. Like classical music, it has the word "classic" in its name, but unlike classical music, it rocks. Score another one for the monster truck shows.
Now, suppose you're at the ballet and you wanted to have one of the dancers sign your chest...most likely you'd be branded a stalker and pervert and kicked out on your ass. But at the monster truck show, our photographer, Liza Smith, asked to have her chest signed, and Slick Mullins, driver of the Enforcer (which unfortunately went on to lose every heat) was more than willing to oblige. If you think Baryshnikov gives that kind of respect to his audiences, think again.
The athletes who drive the cars are good, down-home folk, too. In fact, not a one of them hails from a former Soviet republic. At the TCC show, there was Christopher Roy, driving D-Generation X; Christ Wietstock driving Shredder; Mitch Amisano in WWF's Monster Truck Stone Cold Steve Austin; and the evening's winner, Rex Smith, driving Awesome Kong.
Rex's extra-long mullet was brushed to perfection as he strutted across the arena in his tight-fitting red jumpsuit and weight-lifter's back-support belt. Not only was he to be the winner, he acted like it.
After the drivers left the autograph table and the sounds of Queen's "We Will Rock You" died down, the announcer, Rex Post, came on to prepare the crowd of cap-wearing fans for the event. We all rose for the national anthem, which, in traditional fashion, was followed by the bellowing sound of Post shouting, "Let's get ready to rumble!" It takes the love of American culture that you only find at monster truck shows (and perhaps roller derby events) to realize that the national anthem is about rumbling. Those rockets and bombs weren't glaring and bursting for nothing.
The first round commenced. The object here was to get the most air while jumping over the wrecked cars, and it is, thus, the most dangerous round, as these top-heavy vehicles tip over very easily. The winner is decided by applause, and the audiences goad the drivers into making the riskiest possible moves.
The crowd got a little of what they were craving when the Enforcer, a monster truck painted to look like a police cruiser, and sponsored by the anti-drug organization D.A.R.E., snagged its underbelly on a '78 Chevy station wagon. Although it didn't tip over and burst into flames, it did kick up a lot of dust and metal trying to get free. That ought to keep kids away from pot! (Sadly, the Sheriff's new budget just cut funding for the D.A.R.E. program, so Enforcer might have some trouble paying for those repairs.)
While we waited for the wreckage to be cleared away, announcer Post came on to lead us in cheering for Enforcer driver Slick Mullins. Then, to show his community spirit, he asked us to cheer for our "local sports teams." Then he had us all cheering about the upcoming SuperBowl. Then, as things were taking awhile, and he was running out of applause lines, he showed great creativity in leading a cheer for the towing crew removing the Enforcer.
The truck we'd been waiting for, WWF's Monster Truck Stone Cold Steve Austin, then came on to thrill us by shooting nearly straight into the air in what would have been the finest wheelie of the evening, had the vehicle not landed hard on its side and crashed to the arena floor, spilling oil on the delicately manicured dirt-mound tableau.
Luckily, driver Mitch Amisano was OK, and while the tow truck crew ("let's give em another cheer!") came out to clear the debris, Post got another chance to toss applause lines at the crowd. My favorite was, "You have a choice of entertainment, and we're glad you chose monster trucks!" Well, hell, we're glad too!
I took this opportunity to scan the crowd, and was gratified by what I saw. It had been six years since I'd last been to a monster truck show, and at that event the audience was made up almost exclusively of boys and their fathers. At last Friday's show there were an almost equal number of girls and women, all enjoying the manly spectacle of fossil fuel-based entertainment.
Once the field was again cleared, and the dirt and wrecked cars re-ordered, the tough truck competition began. This is what really sets the truck show apart from its cousin sporting and arts events: everyone can get a hand in. The tough truck competition is open to the public, for a meager $15 registration fee, and Tucsonans met the challenge with a variety of street-legal vehicles. Each car must round the extremely punishing track, shooting over 10-foot-high ramps and turning on a dime in order to avoid careening into the crowd. By the end of the evening, most of the entries were leaking fluids and limping on flattened tires, but Vic Johnson managed to drive his dune buggy through three rounds without much more than a dusty frame, making it the easy winner. Sympathy votes went to the Range Rover that pulled a crowd-pleasing, axle-breaking, tire-bursting jump on the last round and had to be dragged off the field.
THERE'S SOMETHING quintessentially American about this, and it's not just the willingness to pay $15 for the privilege of destroying your vehicle just so you can spend a moment in the limelight.
Motor sports, and monster trucks in particular, are the most American of art forms. Say what you will about jazz or the blues, neither of them captures the true spirit of America like monster trucks. Whereas the majority of jazz and blues fans now seem to be snooty French assholes who think they're getting a taste of "l'experience noir" by watching some ancient trumpeter blow his last breath into the brass, monster trucks have completely failed to find an audience on the other side of the Atlantic. In fact, a European tour of the monster trucks was recently canceled due to total lack of interest. Apparently not even Belgians are willing to shell out the $27 a ticket to sit in an enclosed space that is slowly filling with carbon monoxide.
There was a recent attempt to bring monster trucks to the middle east. For some reason, after the turmoil of the Gulf War, the Prince of Kuwait asked that there be a monster truck show there, the first in Kuwaiti history. Luckily, before 1,300 years of refined Islamic cultural history could be so assaulted, the prince fell ill and the show was canceled.
My theory, though, is that the Prince of Kuwait couldn't possibly have had the background in trailer hitches and one-eyed-huntin' dogs necessary for an appreciation of monster trucks, and that the whole thing was really a plot by the Clinton administration to make a show of force to intimidate the Iraqis. President Bill, who, let's remember, is from Arkansas, a monster truck Mecca, must have thought, "Them Eye-Rakis'll see our enormous tires and be runnin' to the phone to tell Saddam, 'Hey! It's bad news! The U.S. has jacked-up trucks and nitro-burning funny cars...our massive stockpile of biological and chemical warheads are no match for that! Quick, dismantle the secret weapons fabrications plant and pledge allegiance to the great Satan!' Hoo-hah, that'll show 'em!"
Sadly, this didn't come off, but the fact that the rest of the world is apparently too afraid of our enormous vehicles of mass destruction to allow them across their borders is further proof of American cultural superiority. Which is where the final event of the evening came in: After the prizes had been awarded to Rex Smith's Awesome Kong (which won the wheelie contest when Stone Cold Steve Austin couldn't be repaired for the next round) and Vic Johnson's dune buggy, the lights grew dim and excitement mounted. Could it be the moment we'd been waiting for?
Announcer Post told us this final spectacle was "for all the children, and for the child in all of us." And then, it appeared...a sleek vehicle that, according to the narration, hailed from another planet. Looking like a rocket on wheels, or a stretch limo that someone had squashed down and put fins on, the car known as Vorian rolled slowly onto the field. Sure, it was cool looking, but what could it do to help our feelings?
Well, just when we thought we'd seen it all, flames burst from the safety-inspected flame jets on the back of the car, and Vorian began to unfold, standing upright and turning, Transformer-like, into a giant robot!
This robot, this Vorian, began to speak to the children (and the child in us all), telling us that we must follow our dreams, and make them come true. To bring this point home, it raised its mighty flame-throwing arm, aimed it at a cardboard box painted with the words "I can't" and "I won't," and fired off a jet of burning gas just as a pre-arranged dynamite charge caused this box to be blasted to smithereens, thus destroying the negative feelings that can haunt a child (or the child in all of us).
Thus, with a nearly deafening bang and the use of dangerous volatile oils and explosives, the show ended. While I'm sure much of the audience hurried home to catch Afternoon of a Faun on PBS, some of us lingered and thought about the message we'd received: There may be sorrow and pain and negativity in the world, but nothing beats an assortment of giant vehicles spewing toxic fumes and tumbling dangerously over ancient Fords and enormous mounds of muddy earth.
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